The rules for the English comma can seem confusing, difficult, and generally unpleasant for both native and non-native speakers. But it doesn’t have to be!
There are some basic English comma rules you can follow that makes the process a whole lot easier. Commas are one of the most common punctuation marks, so knowing how to use them is very important!
The general rule I follow is this: The reader of your sentence should be able to understand it after reading it only one time. If the reader has to go back and re-read the sentence, then the sentence is not clear enough, and there is probably a comma missing somewhere.
Separating Words and Word Groups in a Series
The Series Comma is used to separate (keep apart) words or groups of words in a series of three or more.
- He bought apples, oranges, and bananas at the store.
See how you use a comma to separate each word? This helps to establish (create, show) clarity in the sentence. This sentence also has an example of the Oxford comma.
The Oxford Comma is the comma after “oranges” in the above example. I prefer the Oxford comma, as it provides further clarity within the sentence.
- I am going to pick up your brother and sister from school, take the dog for a walk, and set the table for tea and cake.
Here, you can clearly see exactly three things I am going to do. Because the English commas are in the right places, you can also clearly see how the tasks are divided (separated).
Technically, however, the Oxford comma is optional. You don’t have to use it, and many magazines and newspapers especially in the UK do not. But we (Crystal and I) personally recommend it.
(Click here for a funny example why. Without the comma, it looks like the names of the strippers are JFK and Stalin.)
Separating Two Adjectives
You can use an English comma to separate two adjectives when the order of the adjectives doesn’t matter. (Sometimes the order does matter, however! See Grammar Girl for that lesson!)
- He is a smart, clever man.
- He is a clever, smart man.
The comma can be used here because the sentence makes sense no matter which adjective comes first.
In addition, if you can use the word and instead of a comma when describing something, then you can place a comma in between the adjectives.
- He is a smart and clever man.
- He is a clever and smart man.
Two Independent Clauses
If you have a sentence with two independent clauses (complete sentences) that are joined by the words and, or, or but, place a comma before those connecting words.
- They walked home, and shut the door.
As in the above rules, this helps to provide clarity within the sentence.
Non-essential Information (Non-Defining Clauses)
Writers, for example, use commas to separate non-essential information in a description to help flesh out (describe) a character for the reader. You can separate non-essential information within a sentence with commas.
- My brother, who is twenty-two years old, lives in New York City.
The information that my brother is twenty-two years old in this sentence is not necessary for the main sentence: My brother lives in New York City.
The main point of the sentence was only to tell you where he lived, so the only necessary information is that my brother lives in New York City. Placing a comma before and after the unnecessary information- that he is 22 years old- helps separate it from necessary information.
FYI (for your information- see more text speak abbreviations from last week!), this “extra” information is called a non-defining clause because it doesn’t more clearly define the subject (my brother) of the sentence.
An example of a defining clause would be “I’m allergic to desserts that have nuts.” The “that have nuts” more clearly specifies exactly which desserts you are allergic to.
If you’re quoting someone in writing, use a comma to introduce the quote.
- He said, “I have to go to the store.”
This rule, like many other English comma rules, helps provide clarity to the reader….and it looks nice, doesn’t it?
English commas seem complicated, but they’re quite simple when you know the rules! Why not write a few sentences yourself, and share them in the comments below? Practice makes perfect, after all!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and is generally speaking, a big fan of good punctuation in general!